Monday, May 26, 2008

A&E airs remake of "The Andromeda Strain"


Michael Crichton’s notorious novel “The Andromeda Strain” was made into a thriller by Universal Pictures with Robert Wise as the director in 1971, and on May 26 and 27, A&E Cable is airing a remake (also from Universal), updated to the modern concerns about bioterror and North Korea. The miniseries is directed by Mikael Salomon.

The setup is well known. A domestic space satellite crashes in the west, a civilian couple picks it up, and takes it to a small town, where everybody dies, except a baby and an old wino. As in “28 Days Later” the people sometimes become maniacal first. But here the virus may have come from outer space. Vultures hover over the town in early foreshadowing, and then they die, too.

A crypto secret Delta force of volunteer scientists is dispatched to a top secret underground laboratory called Project Wildfire. In both films the scientists undergo interesting decontamination; in the 1971 film there is a photoflash chamber that burns and depilates the entire body (perhaps predicting infection control procedures for surgeons some day); later there is “body analysis.” [I note with some amusement that one of the sponsors was Gillette, with a cute commercial of a guy using the "Body Wash"; the commercial was replayed numerous times.] There are debates as to whether to nuke the small town, and the Project Wildfire has a self-destruct capability. The project team intentionally is staffed with at least one unmarried man, on the theory that an unmarried man is more likely to obey an order to self-destruct “for the good of society”.

Jack Nash plays Eric McCormack, a somewhat rogue reporter, suspended for alcohol problems, who gets his job back by convincing the boss that he knows about “Project Scoop.” Pretty soon the chief scientist Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt) is communicating with him to find out what they’re in for. The find out that the bug has no DNA and may consist of wormholes inside buckeyballs (fullerenes), an idea explored in James Rollins ‘s novel “Sandstorm.” They learn that nuking Andromeda would only make it spread.

In fact, the actual chemistry of fullerenes is much more down to earth than science fiction makes of it, but the idea that an unusual molecule or even an unusual isotope of an atom could encapsulate a wormhole or some transformative potential certainly can generate storylines and plots.

For example, in one of my manuscripts, I postulate than certain viruses could carry unusual radioactive atoms that generate micro black holes that are used to exchange absorb identities of people. One can learn what it is like to "become" someone else, someone who is a cultural patriarch, who suddenly learns to live with "your" karma. In Crichton, Andromeda carries information in the arrangement of potassium and rubidium atoms. The scientists finally wonder if it comes from the future (like "The 4400") and creates a paradox by trying to destroy the past, or if the virus is an engine for instantaneous communication across the universe with wormholes. Ironically, the "antidote" seems to be an unusual extremophile bacterium near a heat vent in the deep ocean, which environmental activists are demonstrating to protect (from "undersea stripmining").

The construction of a subplot involving the rogue reporter (Nash) doing his own "investigations" and essentially getting kidnapped by the government (with all its Patriot Act powers) and then escaping in the disaster, is interesting. One is reminded of the reporter in Sydney Pollock's "Absence of Malice" perhaps. In one of my scripts, I have a young male reporter, engaged but ambiguous in his sexuality, who goes on a supernatural quest to find out who he is, encounters like-minded people, and is drawn into a bizarre initiation that would finally identify "the UFOs" and lead to a worldwide cataclysm.

The script mentions other rogue experiments that bring the story up to date, such as one with smallpox. It also points to the politics of stopping nuclear proliferation, a transparent commentary on the difficulty of containing the downstream risk of nuclear terrorism as often written about by Graham Allison. The fact that vultures and other predatory birds carry the "strain" provides an obvious metaphor or the risk of an avian influenza pandemic.

The writing style of the miniseries resembles the Fox series “24”.

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